How Advocate saved $4.8M by improving patient nutrition

Improving patient nutrition can save hospitals a lot of money, according to a new study.

Advocate Health Care launched two nutrition models at four of its Chicago hospitals in 2014, and since then has enrolled more than 1,200 patients in the programs and saved more than $4.8 million in costs, according to research published in the journal American Health & Drug Benefits. Most of the savings came from reduced readmissions and shorter patient stays, averaging about $3,800 per patient.

Previous research has suggested that disease-driven malnutrition is a financial burden on the healthcare system, increasing treatment costs by as much as $15.5 billion per year. The per capita costs vary by state, ranging from $36 in Utah to $65 in the District of Columbia.

Advocate studied the impacts of its nutrition programs on its readmission rates, and it found that readmissions decreased by 27% and cut stays by two days. Using that data as a baseline, researchers at healthcare company Abbott Laboratories estimated the cost impacts.

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Advocate’s interventions included screening patients for malnutrition using a four-question test and then providing patients flagged as malnourished with additional nutrition supplements alongside regular hospital meals. It also offered outpatient nutrition services through coupons and phone calls with patients following discharge.

Pilots like these allow providers to take advantage of the benefits of value-based care, said Lee Sacks, M.D., Advocate executive vice president and chief medical officer, in an announcement.

"Value-based care means looking comprehensively at patient care to identify gaps and opportunities for improvement," Sacks said. "The study’s findings demonstrate that modest changes in the way we care for patients, such as ensuring patients are nourished during their hospital stay, can have a big impact in reducing costs and improving health outcomes."

Other hospitals have implemented malnutrition and food insecurity programs among those aimed at the social determinants of health. Some now have physicians “prescribe” food, in which a nutritionist pulls together a healthy selection for the patient, and others offer more healthy options for in-house meals. Hospitals that improved their food offerings also saw increased patient satisfaction.